Seemita's Reviews > The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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Dec 21, 2016

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, america, other-awards-w, drama, culture, netgalley, toi

[Originally appeared here (with edits): http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/li...]

Shaping a work around the theme of slavery and its many tentacles is a bit like shaping a lump of rigid clay into something cohesive and stable. On one hand, excessive pressure on misery squashes the vein of the narrative and on another, a voice too rebellious, hollows out the inherent pain of its victims. Drawing that line which does justice to this divide is certainly not an easy task and that is precisely where Whitehead shines.

'The Underground Railroad' is an allegorical tale, spoken through the life and times of Cora. Her grandmother, Ajarry, from Western Africa, was a worker on the sprawling Randall plantation in Georgia, where, eventually, she passed on the tarnished legacy to her daughter, Mabel and granddaughter, Cora. Slave owners measure their success in the amount of tyranny they exert and Randall was not the one to walk against the league. However, 16-years old Cora was made of sterner stuff than most around her and harboured a burning desire, every instant, to break free. One fateful night, she manages to escape, with a compatriot, Caesar and makes her way to the underground railway station wherein a train promises her to scoop them away from the hell. And thus, begins her relationship with the unending maze of underground railroads that remains faithful to her survival till the last page of this book.

Whitehead draws a riveting picture of the slavery regime, with his nuanced characterization and feisty story-telling. The image of Cora is, all at once, an amalgamation of the bright and subdued; almost as if, she grows big and small in tune with her undulating escapes and captures. Even as she understands that she will remain perennially hunted, she is besieged with the dreams of a housewife. Whitehead takes extra care to keep Cora, a normal woman with not-so-normal scars.
Cora always fell asleep following Martin’s visit, sometimes after an interval of sobbing and sometimes so quickly she was like a candle being blown out.
As the adult Cora begins a new life in South Carolina under a false name, Bessie, between her chains and freedom, stands her fate and the perilous slave-catcher, Ridgeway. Ridgeway is fascinating in his ambition. He pursues Cora like a trained police dog and licks his lips in malice at her capture from a Stationmaster’s house. He also takes an orphan under his refuge and grants him a decent life of an account keeper for him. His dualities make him a human and a pariah, in a strange, stinging way.
She had never seen him rush or hurry. The man moved with exquisite calm, like a leaf drifting on the surface of a pond, making its own way on gentle currents.
Whitehead understands that secondary characters lift the statement being made by the protagonist to greater heights and thus, etches his’, with great tact. His terse descriptions of the slave camp in the conversations of its inhabitants are a subtle way of expressing their acceptance. From the apprehensions hanging thick in air in the houses of those who shelter Cora, to the womanly advice that comes in the dormitory Cora resides in as Bessie, just the right note of tension is released into the narrative to reflect the constantly alert mind of Cora. As the book says, “Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden.”

This is a hard-hitting tale of physical, social and psychological wounds that slavery inflicts and in a way, an appeal to stop the pursuit which has only taken a more refined and sophisticated garb in the current times. Otherwise, destination might turn an illusion soon and journey might assume, a very noxious connotation.

[Note: Thanks to Netgalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC.]

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Reading Progress

December 14, 2016 – Started Reading
December 14, 2016 – Shelved
December 16, 2016 –
page 75
23.29% "'James contented himself with the security of a fashionable crop, the slow, inevitable accumulations of his estate. Terrance took a more active hand, ever scheming for ways to increase the loads sent to New Orleans. He wrung out every possible dollar. When black blood was money, the savvy businessman knew to open the vein.'"
December 17, 2016 –
page 130
40.37% "'Arnold Ridgeway’s father was a blacksmith. The sunset glow of molten iron bewitched him, the way the color emerged in the stock slow and then fast, overtaking it like an emotion, the sudden pliability and restless writhing of the thing as it waited for purpose.'"
December 21, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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message 1: by Dolors (new)

Dolors What a perfectly paced retelling of a tale of injustice, abuse and hardship, Seemita. I did particularly like the portrait you so deftly paint of Cora and how the web of her life and destiny intertwine with the image of railroads that imply a journey to the unknown, but also a path to be chased. Your words shine, Simi, I don't know how you manage, but your reviews soar no matter the book at hand.


Seemita Jean-Paul wrote: "Fabulously formulated phases as per usual, Seemita. Even though the topic is a tough one, you turn it into tremendous read!"

Thanks, JP. This is quite certainly a tough topic, something whose treatment requires a great deal of empathy and sincerity. I am glad Whitehead didn't let me down here.


message 3: by Pearl (new)

Pearl Angeli Wonderful review, Seemita :)


message 4: by Praj (new)

Praj I need to make a "Seemita" shelf for all the books you keep introducing to me with your eloquent words. This particular phrase "Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden.” haunts you right away. Makes you fear the world that had thrived once or even in the present somewhere around in some corner. Thanks again.


Seemita Dolors wrote: "What a perfectly paced retelling of a tale of injustice, abuse and hardship, Seemita. I did particularly like the portrait you so deftly paint of Cora and how the web of her life and destiny intert..."

You are perfect in your observation, D. The journey was indeed one Cora had to undertake despite not knowing its consequences; something akin to finally fleeing to an unknown angel after the known devil has sapped almost everything out of you. The book was a statement, not so much in its vagaries but in the silences that permeated the hiding dens Cora frequented for protecting her dear life. Thank you for never ceasing to send your encouraging hug my way, dearie :)


Seemita Pearl wrote: "Wonderful review, Seemita :)"

Thank you, Pearl! And have a lovely year ahead :)


Seemita Praj wrote: "I need to make a "Seemita" shelf for all the books you keep introducing to me with your eloquent words. This particular phrase "Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America rem..."

You are right; the fear is knowing that this discrimination and oppression isn't a thing of past and its currents continue to flow underneath the world we live in today. Who is to say what form they might take and rise to what heights of usurpation if aren't nipped in the bud soon? Thank you, Praj, for seeing so clearly what I was trying to articulate. And 'Seemita' shelf will be rather honoured to have a place in your world :)


message 8: by Anuradha (new) - added it

Anuradha I have been looking forward to this book, Simi. Your rating and exquisite review only increases my longing!


Nandakishore Varma This is a hard-hitting tale of physical, social and psychological wounds that slavery inflicts and in a way, an appeal to stop the pursuit which has only taken a more refined and sophisticated garb in the current times. Otherwise, destination might turn an illusion soon and journey might assume, a very noxious connotation.

Perfectly put. Fine review as usual, Seemita.


message 10: by Matthias (new)

Matthias Magnificent review Seemita! I saw this one earlier in the store. Next time I'm seeing it I'm buying. An important theme brought to us through a riveting story-line. Thanks for this.


Seemita Anuradha wrote: "I have been looking forward to this book, Simi. Your rating and exquisite review only increases my longing!"

It's a pacey, relevant and candid portrayal of vagaries of slavery, Anu. I think it should find resonance with you. Here now, giving you another reason to look beyond the exams ;) Thanks for the shout-out!


Seemita Nandakishore wrote: "This is a hard-hitting tale of physical, social and psychological wounds that slavery inflicts and in a way, an appeal to stop the pursuit which has only taken a more refined and sophisticated garb..."

Thank you, NK. A very fine book has elicited this review. Good to see it in your TBR shelf.


Seemita Matthias wrote: "Magnificent review Seemita! I saw this one earlier in the store. Next time I'm seeing it I'm buying. An important theme brought to us through a riveting story-line. Thanks for this."

Many thanks, Matt! This is quite definitely a mature and sensitive handling of an important theme that is still prevalent, albeit in different avatars, in the current times. I hope you find the book meritorious in your reading.


message 14: by Marita (new) - added it

Marita Seemita, thank you for your excellent review. This novel which I have already downloaded is now bumped up in my tbr.


Seemita Marita wrote: "Seemita, thank you for your excellent review. This novel which I have already downloaded is now bumped up in my tbr."

My pleasure, Marita. I will watch out for your thoughts which, am sure, will throw some new perspectives to consider.


message 16: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Oh how I've waited for your thoughts on this and of course your sumptuous review does not disappoint! I love this idea of a woman with the hidden scars of brutality trying to survive and maybe even thrive, in a world that once existed parallel to hers. Maybe this is a psychological feat I should tackle soon...


message 17: by Seemita (last edited Jan 19, 2017 11:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Seemita Cheryl wrote: "Oh how I've waited for your thoughts on this and of course your sumptuous review does not disappoint! I love this idea of a woman with the hidden scars of brutality trying to survive and maybe even..."

A telling tale of slavery indeed, Cheryl. Cora reflects the time with a feral trepidation, if that is possible. The book is also made powerful by laying bare the psyche of people who shelter these slaves. There is almost a Hans Hubermann-Max kind of relationship between Martin and Cora. I am sure you will draw much more than me upon your reading and as always, I will be expectant :)


message 18: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Fonseca Nice review Seemita, thank you. I have a copy but have not yet started it.


message 19: by Councillor (new) - added it

Councillor Such an intriguing review, Seemita! I heard of this book quite a few times before due to its role in the GR Choice Awards and the critical acclaim it received, but I have never really cared to figure out what the book is actually about until reading your thoughts on the story - so, thank you for sharing your review with us! :)


message 20: by Nicole~ (new)

Nicole~ A compelling review, Seemita. Its been on my shelf, will bump it up. Thanks!


Seemita Jim wrote: "Nice review Seemita, thank you. I have a copy but have not yet started it."

Thank you, Jim. It was a compelling read and I will watch out for your thoughts on the same.


Seemita Councillor wrote: "Such an intriguing review, Seemita! I heard of this book quite a few times before due to its role in the GR Choice Awards and the critical acclaim it received, but I have never really cared to figu..."

You are right, Fabian. This book has been praised a good lot and that is precisely why I decided to give it a shot. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed. There is a sense of hope that runs throughout this book which assuages the pain, humiliation and grief of the victims of slavery. Perhaps, a bit of light in the dark railroad is all one needs to muster the latent courage. Thanks for reading this review and leave a note of appreciation, my friend :)


Seemita Nicole~ wrote: "A compelling review, Seemita. Its been on my shelf, will bump it up. Thanks!"

My pleasure, Nicole! Hope you enjoy it! And a wonderful 2017 to you :)


message 24: by Ilse (new)

Ilse What an eloquent recount of what must have been a more than disconcerting book in many respects, Seemita. Your poignantly formulated last paragraph is a powerful call for alertness. A good thing the importance of this book is internationally recognized and trickling down in various languages.


Seemita Ilse wrote: "What an eloquent recount of what must have been a more than disconcerting book in many respects, Seemita. Your poignantly formulated last paragraph is a powerful call for alertness. A good thing th..."

This was, indeed, a disconcerting read, Ilse. And to be painfully aware of the fact that such oppressive landlords are still striving under economic and political disguises is a bane that I expect, works like these, to contribute in negating. Voices as Whitehead's must be encouraged. Thank you for reading, my friend.


message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

His terse descriptions of the slave camp in the conversations of its inhabitants are a subtle way of expressing their acceptance. From the apprehensions hanging thick in air in the houses of those who shelter Cora, to the womanly advice that comes in the dormitory Cora resides in as Bessie, just the right note of tension is released into the narrative to reflect the constantly alert mind of Cora.

I marvel at your ability of assimilating the nuance and putting it bare to the light of your fluid prose, Seemita - this analysis is also interpretative of the way author integrates his skills to emulate his effect upon the reader; only a fellow writer can discern such insight, right? ;)


Seemita Waqas wrote: "I marvel at your ability of assimilating the nuance and putting it bare to the light of your fluid prose, Seemita - this analysis is also interpretative of the way author integrates his skills to emulate his...."

The author does have a good command on the language here, Waqas; while ensuring that the narrative has a pace and nature of its own, he resists the temptation of spoon-feeding his reader, which is something I appreciate. Also, in a work like this where a topic so gruesome as slavery is at the centre, it is, perhaps, best to not be too inferential.

"...only a fellow writer can discern such insight, right? ;)"

I am not very sure if I can don that hat sans debate but I won't let this compliment pass by without acknowledging its beauty. So, thank you! :)


message 28: by [deleted user] (last edited Jan 27, 2017 05:59AM) (new)

Seemita wrote: "Waqas wrote: "I marvel at your ability of assimilating the nuance and putting it bare to the light of your fluid prose, Seemita - this analysis is also interpretative of the way author integrates h..."

Thank you for your further intuitive insight into this work. Yes, restraint is something difficult to maintain in the face of temptation especially in works of art. This might be slightly off, but your lovely words reminded me of a Adrienne Rich's poem:

Coming by evening through the wintry city
We said that art is out of love with life.
Here we approach a love that is not pity.

This antique discipline, tenderly severe,
Renews belief in love yet masters feeling,
Asking of us a grace in what we bear.

Form is the ultimate gift that love can offer –
The vital union of necessity
With all that we desire, all that we suffer.

A too-compassionate art is half an art.
Only such proud restraining purity
Restores the else-betrayed, too-human heart.


message 29: by Seemita (last edited Jan 30, 2017 04:12AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Seemita Waqas wrote: "Seemita wrote: "Waqas wrote: "I marvel at your ability of assimilating the nuance and putting it bare to the light of your fluid prose, Seemita - this analysis is also interpretative of the way aut..."

How gorgeous! Thanks for sharing it, Waqas. I haven't read any of Rich's poems but suffice to say that this glimpse enhances the prospect of reading her.


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